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Reflecting on David Ahlquist, M.D., and Mayo Clinic’s culture of innovation

The passing of David Ahlquist, M.D. (MED ’77, I ’80, GI ’83), who died Nov. 1 from complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, has brought Mayo Clinic’s culture of innovation into sharper focus. His 35-year career at Mayo serves as inspiration for all staff as Mayo pursues its “Bold. Forward.” path to cure, connect and transform health care.

Motivated to solve unmet patient needs, Dr. Ahlquist broke new ground in the prevention and early detection of cancer. His seminal laboratory observations were translated into an FDA-approved stool DNA test for colorectal cancer, commercialized as Cologuard through his collaboration with industry partner Exact Sciences. Today, Cologuard has been used to screen for colorectal cancer in more than 4 million people, preventing thousands of deaths. In his later career, Dr. Ahlquist led a team of academic and industry investigators on a yet-to-be-completed journey to detect and prevent multiple cancers using a blood-based assay approach.

“Dr. Ahlquist will be remembered as a national and international leader, compassionate and smart clinician, dedicated mentor and tireless innovator who was inspired by his patients to transform the practice of medicine. He will be deeply missed,” says Gianrico Farrugia, M.D. (I ’91, GI ’94), president and CEO of Mayo Clinic.

In the months before Dr. Ahlquist’s passing, Exact Sciences made a gift to fund an endowed professorship at Mayo Clinic in honor of Dr. Ahlquist. The gift celebrates the decades of principled research that brought together two organizations committed to advancing scientific discoveries in ways that neither could do alone. The endowment will provide funding for cancer research in perpetuity, perpetuating a culture of innovation at Mayo Clinic that started with one transformative, patient-centered project.

In recognition of his achievements, Dr. Ahlquist was honored as the inaugural recipient of Mayo Clinic’s Distinguished Innovator Award and named a fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, the highest distinction for academic inventors.

Dr. Ahlquist earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Minnesota and his Doctor of Medicine at Mayo Medical School (today, Mayo Clinic Alix School of Medicine). Following residency and a fellowship in gastroenterology at Mayo Clinic, he joined the staff in the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Mayo Clinic in 1983. Dr. Ahlquist retired from Mayo Clinic in 2018.

Throughout his training and career, Dr. Ahlquist received numerous honors and awards, and held many professional leadership positions. He served as president of the Mayo Clinic Staff and medical director for the Department of Development. He also held professional memberships with the American Medical Association, American Association for Cancer Research, American Gastroenterological Association, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other organizations.

Dr. Ahlquist epitomized the spirit of innovation that is central to Mayo Clinic’s mission and values.

“If one could imagine a perfect environment for medical entrepreneurism, patient-centered, it would be Mayo Clinic,” Dr. Ahlquist shared in a previous interview.

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